Schools and slush funds could be top topics this session
It will be a short session, only 90 days. Mississippi lawmakers will be back home while the azaleas are still in bloom, at least in some parts of the state.
What will make headlines? No one every really knows for sure, but K-12 education is a safe bet. House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, says he wants to talk about campaign finance reform a bit more, too.
Three months ago, legislative leaders signed a contract (which wasn’t secret, then it was, then it wasn’t again) with EdBuild, a new consulting firm that studies school funding methodologies.
The gist is that the leadership wants to explore alternatives to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program’s formula, set into law 20 years ago and provided with full funding only twice.
The formula was adopted in a year when the U.S. Department of Justice was threatening to sue Mississippi, as it had other states, for not equalizing funding between “rich” districts and “poor” districts. The formula does that. No suit was filed.
Formulas aside, K-12 education has steadily received more and more millions while, in the big picture, lawmakers and the public have been less and less satisfied with results.
Stories such as the F-rated Jackson Public Schools providing a $5,000 bonus to its superintendent and another $195,000 when he resigned last year don’t exactly build public confidence that everything is on the up and up.
There are great public schools in Mississippi, serving their mission against all odds. And there are some that are awful. The education lobby believes the role of EdBuild will be to serve as the experts upon whose advice charter schools will be expanded. The EdBuild chief says that’s not so, but the Legislature’s desire to contract-out education — to get it off their plates — is no secret. Many districts outsource pupil transportation and food services, so why not the whole ball game?
Here’s why: The same “quality” factors infest the charter school world as the public school world. Some charter schools fit the ideal: Dedicated, attentive, involved parents providing a nurturing learning environment. Some are corporate cash mills where profit maximization is Job 1 (and only).
Wise lawmakers will not jump on the bandwagon without copious research and incorporating safeguards as wells as best practices that have proven effective elsewhere.
The state will gain no ground by talking itself into believing the term “charter school” has, all to itself, magical qualities. Ask Detroit. Ask New Orleans. Ask Washington, D.C. There are successful charter schools, and there are charter schools that are pathetic.
During the 2016 session the state Senate passed some rules on how lawmakers handle and report campaign funds that aligned with federal rules. A somewhat shameful gutting followed in the House. Speaker Gunn says the topic will be revisited.
In truth, Mississippi’s system can be used by the dishonest to launder bribes.
Most ludicrous is that a candidate may obtain a credit card in the campaign’s name, use that card for any expense — prom dress for a child, birthday present for the spouse, vacation in Aruba — then report the total as “Visa bill.”
Itemization is not required, so no one can know how or where, exactly, donated funds were spent.
Lawmakers may also build up their campaign treasury with donations and keep the money when leaving office. Although the IRS would consider a cash-out as taxable income, a corrupt lawmaker could likely escape conviction by selling votes and using his or her campaign bank account to store the loot as a retirement fund.
Gunn told The Clarion-Ledger he wants both provisions changed. He’s to be commended for going on record — with Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves — supporting moves to, perhaps, add public trust in those who serve.
It must be remembered, though, that Gunn also broke ranks with others in the super-majorities Republicans enjoy in both chambers. In 2015, he stated his belief that the Mississippi flag, which incorporates a Confederate battle flag, should be changed.
He was shouted down on that during the 2016 session. The legislation favoring a new flag didn’t even make it to a vote.
The push for campaign finance reform died a similar fate in the House last year. (There was a voice vote on the floor, but no request that individual votes be recorded.) And it could again, despite what the leadership says should happen.
But it’s a new year. New start. Hope springs eternal that legislators, increasingly insistent that schools and school teachers be accountable, will choose to take a sip from that cup as well.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at email@example.com.